Jupiter Ascends To New Heights Of Messy StorytellingPosted: February 7, 2015
Not gonna lie: I’m hugely disappointed. The Wachowskis have historically shown themselves to be hugely talented in crafting action sequences, and incredibly forward-thinking when it comes to storytelling dynamics. And yet with Jupiter Ascending, they somehow lose their feel for both of these disciplines, and in the process squander all of the beautiful imagery and intriguing worldbuilding that the film contains. With the year only a month old, I’m sad to report that Jupiter Ascending is an early contender for my biggest disappointment of the year, and continues last year’s trend of my favorite filmmakers leaving me underwhelmed. Spoilers follow, not that many of you will see the movie anyway.
The narrative clutter of Jupiter Ascending is made more evident by the fact that it’s essentially the same basic plot as The Matrix, and yet has none of the streamlined, focused progressions that mark that previous classic from the Wachowskis. The story follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who is targeted for kidnapping/assassination/etc by the Abrasax family – intergalactic economic royalty (Eddie Redmayne, Thomas Booth and Tuppance Middleton) – because she is the exact genetic recurrence of their mother, and her presence threatens to throw their power struggles into upheaval. Into this political minefield steps Caine (Channing Tatum), a former soldier who is recruited to capture Jupiter, only to protect her when he discovers her true significance. The Wachowskis introduce all of this in a very clunky manner, with none of the necessary exposition being delivered in a particularly engaging fashion, which for a movie like this can be death (again, see The Matrix for a better execution of this).
The big issue is that for all of the disparate characters and plot threads, the film is both cluttered and redundant. The second act of the film is essentially Jupiter being shuttled from one planet to the next by one party or another, going from Abrasax sibling to Abrasax sibling as each of them try to manipulate her towards their own best interests, while Caine keeps sweeping in to save her. Unlike most of the Star Wars films (where we never see more than 3 or 4 major planets or locations per film), Jupiter Ascending has at least 5, and in trying to cram all of these different steps in the plot into a 2 hour film the whole thing ends up feeling absurdly rushed. But even if the Wachowskis had stayed closer to the reported 220-page early drafts in terms of length, that wouldn’t change the fact that all of the siblings are basically redundant. While their methods are slightly different, they ultimate all want to take Jupiter’s inheritance (including Earth) for themselves, or at least use it for their own purposes, and having three of them at odds with each other adds nothing to the narrative. They might as well have folded all three siblings into Eddie Redmayne’s Balem, who has the advantage of being the most theatrical and moustache-twirling evil of the group, and therefore limited all the rushing around.
It also doesn’t help that through all of this, Jupiter remains an incredibly passive and inactive protagonist in a surprisingly backwards step from the Wachowskis. While I had been hoping for Jupiter to stand alongside the likes of Katniss and Anna & Elsa as one of the great modern female protagonists, she is sadly anything but. Instead, she is purely an object, either for the Abrasax kids to use for their schemes or for Caine to save. She barely has a character arc to get through, and the one that she is given has a bullshit ending of her returning back to Earth and living her same old life as a maid (albeit with an alien boyfriend and flying boots, but those are kept hidden anyway). This was a moment I didn’t buy for a second: even if Jupiter’s “arc” is to gain a newfound appreciation for her Earthbound family and normal life, the idea that she would just go back to scrubbing toilets when she owns fucking planets just seems ridiculous. But at the same time, it does makes sense for Jupiter to make that decision. After all, she’s been such a pushover, milquetoast person the whole movie, why wouldn’t she end up back where she started when she doesn’t have to?
If nothing else though, you’d expect the Wachowskis to put out some great action beats to elevate the material, but even those are a disappointment. The action scenes are, like the plot, messy and overly busy, and not as well-constructed as those in the Matrix Trilogy. The CGI imagery combined with overly-rapid camera movements make it hard to get a grasp on the geography and progression of any given shootout, and even the increased movement can’t mask the general lack of energy or intensity. Furthermore, most of the fight scenes are very repetitive, ie Caine zips around shooting things, Jupiter tries to take cover, something explodes, Jupiter starts falling, Caine swoops down and grabs her. Caine’s flight boots should make for some really great action of a different sort than The Matrix’s, but here they don’t add nearly enough, and at times can even feel a little dinky.
Frustrating to see so many beautiful images and exciting world details being drowned by the messy storytelling, not to mention leaving many other characters lost in the shuffle. Stinger (Sean Bean), for example, is a perfectly cool and intriguing character, but pretty much only comes in to serve the plot or provide exposition. We don’t get to spend enough time with him to appreciate his betrayal or his redemption. Similarly, the space cops called the Aegis who help shuttle our heroes from place to place are never given much opportunity to stand out as characters, just visual ideas. For crying out loud, apparently the pilot of the Aegis cruiser is a legit elephant man, who we don’t even know about until the very end of the movie. And all of the really cool, distinctive spaceship designs and wild-looking planets are treated with so little respect and enthusiasm, because the film is in such a rush to get on to the next thing. At the midpoint, the Wachowskis just do a five-minute Brazil homage that culminates with a Terry Gilliam cameo, which is really fun and engaging but is fully self-contained within the story, and unfortunately it’s the only place where the imagery and attempts at humor really merge to create a fully satisfying sequence.
Obviously, a lot about this movie bothered me, and usually in situations like this I won’t even bother writing about the movie. I prefer to focus on the films I like and what they did right. But in the case of Jupiter Ascending, I am particularly disappointed, and I feel that the many missteps the Wachowskis have taken here are perfect examples of what not to do. While I appreciate the tone and visuals of Jupiter Ascending, in the end it is just too busy and cluttered and rushed to really work as a film. If anything it just demonstrates that perhaps the Wachowskis’ visions are running closer to more long-form storytelling, and that maybe 2-hour feature films are not the best medium for them to be working in at the moment. While that does disappoint me, it does mean that I can stay excited for their Netflix series sense8, which will hopefully allow them to more thoroughly explore their ideas in the way that they did not with Jupiter Ascending. But for poor Jupiter, it will sadly stand for me as the one abject failure in the Wachowskis’ career so far, and hopefully the only one for the foreseeable future.